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“Candyman” reflects deeply on racial commodification

Nia DaCosta’s visionary reboot of Bernard Rose’s ‘90s horror entry, now playing at AMC and Marcus theaters, brings the saga full circle, deftly weaving the original and her own together.

Header Image: Visual artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) stands in his studio vainly attempting to cover up a series of disturbing, intensely personal paintings that explore the urban legend of Candyman. He wears a simple dark gray shirt and a troubled expression on his face.

Nia DaCosta’s Candyman (2021) is a movie about the ghost of a Black man who suffered a gruesome murder at the hands of a lynch mob and returns to seek revenge, while imploring his victims to Say His Name. It feels both timely and timeless as society continues to reckon with its complex history of racialized violence and the enduring collective trauma inflicted by white supremacist patriarchal capitalism in the United States. This provocative, visionary reboot of Bernard Rose’s 1992 supernatural slasher film of the same name does justice to the original, while elevating it to dizzying new aesthetic, political, and psychological heights. The film, which opened August 27, is now playing at AMC and Marcus Theaters. 

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Working from a script written with producers Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld, DaCosta meticulously blends Black body horror with trenchant social commentary and a stinging satire of the contemporary art world to create an intense cinematic confection that sticks in the mind. In revisiting the urban legend of Candyman and retelling his story, DaCosta demonstrates that some tales can acquire more meaning and power over time. As one character in the movie says, “You can really make the story your own. But some of the specifics should be consistent.”

An adaptation of Clive Barker’s 1985 short story “The Forbidden,” Rose’s original Candyman film shifted the location from the slums of Liverpool, England, to the notoriously troubled Cabrini-Green public housing projects of Chicago. The movie centers on a white graduate student named Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) conducting research for her thesis on urban folklore. She soon discovers the myth of “Candyman” (Tony Todd), a hook-handed apparition with a thirst for blood who appears when anyone says his name five times in front of a mirror. In his past life, the Candyman was Daniel Robitaille, a 19th-century Black portrait artist who fell in love with one of his subjects—a white woman—and was subsequently captured, mutilated, and tortured to death by a lynch mob. His ashes were scattered across the land that would eventually become Cabrini-Green Homes, and the spirit of Daniel Robitaille (or Candyman) has been terrorizing the residents ever since. Of course, Helen does not really believe Candyman exists and interprets the legend as a collective coping mechanism for the pain and hardship of life in the projects. However, when the Candyman suddenly appears to her and a string of grisly killings ensues, she begins to lose her grip on reality.

While the original Candyman examines issues of race, social class, poverty, and violence in inner-city America, the story is nevertheless filtered through the perspective of a privileged white woman. When it came out in 1992, it was the first slasher film to feature a Black supernatural killer. “Its impact on me was seismic,” Peele has said. “[It] was a romantic nightmare that scared the shit out of me and Black people everywhere. Though the original has some fascinatingly problematic notes (like everything ever), it changed my perspective of what was possible in film by daring to represent Blackness in what was, for me as a genre fan, the ultimate position of power.”

Serving as another landmark in the history of Black cinema, the modern-day Candyman is the first horror feature distributed by a major studio that is directed by a Black woman. Billed as a “spiritual sequel” to the ’92 horror classic, DaCosta’s reimagining of Candyman takes place in 2019 and returns to the remains of the Cabrini-Green neighborhood long after the housing projects were demolished and redeveloped. Her narrative chronologically follows the events of the first film while disregarding two forgettable sequels, Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh (1995) and Candyman: Day of the Dead (1999). DaCosta updates, deconstructs, and recontextualizes the material, expanding on the idea of Candyman as the incarnation of generational trauma and connecting his myth to the endless cycle of institutional violence against Black people. This new version of Candyman reclaims the urban legend from its white storytellers, adding fresh layers and dimensions to the lore as it reflects on gentrification, police brutality, cultural appropriation, and commodification of Blackness. Film historian, novelist, and Black horror expert Tananarive Due calls DaCosta’s film “a fun-house mirror showing us what Candyman looks like through a Black lens.”

DaCosta’s Candyman focuses on Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a promising young Black visual artist who lives with his girlfriend Brianna, (Teyonah Parris), an art gallery curator, in a luxury high-rise condominium built on the site of what was once the Cabrini-Green projects. Visiting their posh apartment for the first time with his partner Grady (Kyle Kaminsky), Brianna’s brother Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) playfully derides the couple for their upwardly mobile lifestyle before turning off the lights and telling them a scary story about a terrible tragedy that occurred here years earlier, which essentially amounts to a summary of the 1992 Candyman.

Troy’s story employs elegantly simple shadow-puppetry (as seen in the trailer and created by Chicago collective Manual Cinema) to illustrate the events described, a recurring visual device that proves hauntingly effective for depicting the horror of white violence against Black people. “My concern is really getting into what the film is about and who the film is for,” DaCosta explained to Carvell Wallace for The Atlantic. “With a film like this, that traffics in Black pain and trauma, it’s imperative that it is told from a Black POV; it’s imperative that we consider the audience for whom this film could be harmful, and that we are very careful about execution.”

Seeking fresh inspiration for his work, Anthony feels compelled to investigate after learning of the Candyman legend from Troy. He visits the last remaining rowhouses of the former projects, where he meets William Burke (Colman Domingo), a friendly but tormented longtime resident of the neighborhood. William fleshes out the history of the area for him and offers some insights into what Candyman truly represents. Anthony then proceeds to create and exhibit a multimedia piece entitled “Say My Name,” a bathroom mirror that opens up to reveal disturbing images of Black trauma, while encouraging spectators to summon the titular specter by repeating his moniker five times. A pompous (white) art critic at the gallery summarily dismisses Anthony’s installation as “didactic, knee-jerk clichés about the ambient violence of the gentrification cycle.”

One ghastly murder after another occurs and Anthony’s artistic capital suddenly multiplies. As he becomes increasingly obsessed with the Candyman mythology, he feverishly embarks on an entire series of extremely unsettling paintings that explore the complicated relationship between Candyman, racial injustice, and the history of Black pain. These visually stunning works, created by Chicago-based artists Sherwin Ovid and Cameron Spratley, express Anthony’s deteriorating mental state, while exemplifying DaCosta’s incredible attention to detail throughout.

In time, Anthony finds himself completely consumed by the urban legend, echoing the character arc of Helen Lyle in the first film. But DaCosta gives the old plot a cathartic new twist, ultimately bringing the saga full circle as she deftly weaves Rose’s film and her own together. She boldly pushes the boundaries of filmmaking with a range of cutting-edge visual techniques, while deliberately referencing the history of body horror cinema, most notably David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Her film’s sleek, ultramodern production design and infinitely inventive cinematography exquisitely complement its richly textured sense of dread and shocking, elaborately stylized images of bizarre ritualistic violence.

A breathtaking, unforgettable, and multilayered cinematic experience, Candyman demands to be seen in a dark theater with other people, reflected on, discussed, dissected, and seen again. Tell everyone.


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